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Aloysius Pang’s death: The trouble with “get on with it”

Defence Minister Ng Eng Heng used one phrase repeatedly when he gave Parliament more details about how Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang was crushed in the Howitzer while on a military exercise in New Zealand on January 19.

CFC Pang and the two soldiers with him in the Howitzer’ cabin had just wanted to “get on with it”, he said. CFC Pang, the gun commander and the regular technician  had to adjust the bearing of the gun by replacing an interface card in the cabin. They wanted to “get on with it” – even though the gun barrel hadn’t been lowered yet.

They wanted to “get on with it” so much that…

a. The technical officer, who holds the rank of Military Expert 2, didn’t check that CFC Pang had moved away from the path of the gun barrel after telling him to do so.

b. CFC Pang actually replied that he didn’t think the gun would hit him and remained in position with his back to the barrel, unscrewing a box which housed the card.

c. The gun commander, who holds the rank of Third Sergeant, shouted the requisite commands, saw that CFC Pang wasn’t in the clear but thought he would have time to get out of the way.

All three wanted to “get on with it”  so much that they threw safety processes to the wind. While CFC Pang was being wedged between the barrel and the cabin interior, the other two men panicked and “acted irrationally”. The technical officer tried to stop the barrel from moving with his bare hands, while the gun commander tried to de-activate the mechanism from the main controls. Both men didn’t think to hit the emergency stop button.

CFC Pang, 28, a MediaCorp actor, died  from his injuries four days later, on Jan 23.

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Dr Ng had a wry look on his face whenever he used the phrase. I will hazard a guess: Isn’t so terribly Singaporean to “get on with it”? Speed and efficiency are traits built into the Singapore psyche. We “get on with it” rather than get on with it “safely”.

Dr Ng’s recital filled in many blanks that were in his preliminary report to Parliament in February, such as whether the gun commander had shouted “clear away” and “standby” and whether the three emergency buttons in the cabin had been pushed. You can read my column here.

We now know that the answer is yes and no. Today, Dr Ng also mentioned a “miscalculation” of the time it would have taken for the barrel to be lowered but didn’t elaborate. Previously, Parliament was told that the gap was nine seconds.

Like he did in February, Dr Ng thinks the Singapore Armed Forces has a cultural problem which it hopes to solve with the newly-installed  Inspector-General’s Office. Among the changes implemented are “emergency drills” so that, presumably, soldiers, airmen and sailors will know where all the right buttons are, among other things.

It must be tough for the Defence Minister to have to recount again the events that led up to CFC Pang’s death. It was a more detailed report this time because it came from the Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the incident. The five-member COI said all three men had contributed to the tragedy, by breaching safety procedures right from the start – the gun was supposed to have been in a locked or standby position first before maintenance work started

Said Dr Ng: “It is sad but undeniable that the direct cause determined by the COI that resulted in the death of CFC (NS) Pang was preventable had there been compliance to safety rules. It was not for lack of knowledge of these rules or inexperience of personnel working on the SSPH (Singapore Self-Propelled Howitzer) gun.”

You almost wish that the howitzer was at fault – but it was inspected both in Singapore and New Zealand. The SAF had used howitzers for 15 years without a mishap.  You almost wish that the three men didn’t know enough about the work they have to do. But they did. The regular technician has 16 years of service while CFC Pang had been briefed about the exercise earlier and had worked on at least 10 howitzers. The gun commander was on his eighth in-camp training exercise.

Then  you realise that at the bottom of it all, the cause was human frailty, doing things in a hurry and thinking that there is no danger attached to maintenance work compared to, say, live firing exercises. Dr Ng lamented that all that was needed to avert the tragedy was “a few seconds of waiting” for CFC Pang to get out of the way or for any one of the three to observe safety rules. There was no “operational” reason to finish the job fast, he said in reply  to MP Vikram Nair. They just wanted to “get on with it”, he added.

I wonder how the two men are faring these days. It must be hard knowing that they could have saved a fellow soldier’s life if they took more care to adhere to standard operating procedures. The New Zealand authorities have waived their right to investigate the case and it is now in the hands of the SAF military prosecutors and the Special Investigation Branch.

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It looks like a court martial is in the offing.




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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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